Florida Defeats MSU 74-66

Not since the Final Four season has there been such anticipation about a basketball game. The 7th ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs were starting their SEC schedule against the 11th ranked Florida Gators Tuesday night at home before a sellout crowd of 10, 541, the second largest crowd in Mississippi State history, and a nationwide ESPN audience.

The Mississippi State Bulldogs, one of the most talked about basketball team among the national media the past couple of weeks, was on center court this night.

The problem is somebody forgot to tell the Florida Gators their part of this coming out party. They were supposed to come in and lose.

Oh, they looked like they were going to do their part at the very beginning of the game when the Bulldogs jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead.

Part of that could probably be attributed to a crowd that was absolutely deafening at the beginning of the game. It was so loud it hurt your ears. However, the Gators would take care of that very, very quickly.

Starting three seniors who had played in front of many SEC crowds like this one, the Gators quickly regained their composure and scored the next eight points to take an 8-4 lead.

"You have to be focused for forty minutes, especially here because they have such a great homecourt advantage," said Florida senior guard Justin Hamilton. "The crowd is going to be making noise."

That lead wouldn't last long as the Bulldogs came back and knotted the score, 8-8, on a bucket by Mario Austin.

The teams then traded a couple of buckets until MSU point guard Derrick Zimmerman, seeing that the Florida defense was sagging in on Austin, knocked down a three to put the Dogs up 15-11 with 9:38 to go in the first half.

"If they keep playing off of me, I'm going to step up and knock the shot down," said Zimmerman.

The Gators, unlike almost all of the teams MSU has faced this season, wouldn't let the Bulldogs go on a run that would allow them to extend the lead to double digits as they scored the next three points to make the score 15-14, MSU.

"They can shoot the basketball," said Zimmerman. "Florida's ability to make shots always keeps them in the game."

The Bulldogs then pulled out to a six-point lead but the Gators went on a 13-7 run that tied the game up, 27-27, with 4:37 left in the first half.

The Bulldogs then went on a 8-2 run to end the first half to lead at halftime, 35-29.

The second half was an entirely different story as the Gators came out roaring to the tune of 15 points to MSU's 2 during the first few minutes of the second half.

"I don't think we came out as focused as we were in the first half," said MSU junior guard Timmy Bowers "We came out and had a couple of turnovers early and it kind of got them going on offense. That started their run."

Mississippi State, after the run by the Gators, finally started getting the ball inside to Austin, who scored 6 of MSU's next 8 points.

However, the Gators, thanks to the shooting of seniors Matt Bonner and Justin Hamilton, continued to expand their lead even with Austin scoring for the Bulldogs.

"I thought that Hamilton and Bonner stepped up and made plays for them," said Stansbury. "You have to have that out of your seniors, especially on the road."

After the Gators jumped out to a seven-point lead, 51-44, the Bulldogs made one of their best runs of the second half with a 8-4 spurt to pull to within three, 55-52.

However, Zimmerman picked up his fourth foul during this period and was taken out of the game for a few minutes.

"Anytime Zimmerman is not on the floor for us it is critical because he gives us so much energy," said Stansbury. "He is a guy that always has a chance to get you a steal, get you a transition basket."

With Zimmerman back in the game but now hampered by foul trouble, the Gators jumped out to their biggest lead of the game, 66-56, with a little over 4 minutes to go.

But the Bulldogs were not ready to give up.

Over the next two and a half minutes, behind the offensive firepower of Austin, MSU pulled to within five, 68-63.

However, with just 1:30 now left on the clock, they were running out of time and had to start fouling the Gators.

Gator seniors Hamilton and Bonner were up to the task, making all six of their free-throws down the stretch to seal the 74-66 victory.

Florida was led in scoring by Hamilton and Bonner with 22 and 16 points. They were 11 of 12 from the free-throw line, most of which were scored during the last two minutes of the ballgame.

MSU was led in scoring by Austin with 22 points and Bowers with 14. Austin also pulled down a career-high 16 rebounds.

"Give Florida a lot of credit," said Stansbury. "They came in here and did what they had to do to win the basketball game. I think it is the first time all year that we got outworked. In particular the start of the second half. I think that was where the ballgame was decided. We had a six-point lead at halftime and we had the ball. Then, they go on a 15-2 run against us. And I didn't think we really responded."

Even though the Gators did what was necessary to win the game, the Bulldogs came into the game shorthanded due to an unexpected illness.

"(Ontario) Harper had IVs in him up until the start of the game," said Stansbury. "He showed up for shoot-around throwing up and left shoot-around throwing up. He spent time in the health center until gametime hooked up to IVs. We had no idea what was wrong with him. We started him and he was no factor."

Although Harper doesn't score many points, him not being fullspeed affected the team chemistry, according to Stansbury.

"We didn't have much rhythm all night long," said Stansbury. "I didn't think we moved very well in motion. I think it broke our rhythm all night. It is the first time I think we haven't spurted against somebody. Our defense has always given us opportunities to make runs and spurts against teams. Tonight, we never got deflections. We never got down and got easy transition baskets. That is something that Harper does a tremendous job for us. We didn't have that tonight."

Even though it was a tough loss, this veteran Bulldog team has been through the SEC wars and knows things can suddenly change for the better. Each game is a new challenge, a new opportunity. That is how they see their next game, a road game at LSU this coming Saturday night.

"I really don't think (the loss) puts any pressure on us," said Bowers. "They all count as one win or one loss. We just have to go down to Baton Rouge focused. We have to go down to LSU and play our kind of basketball; toughness, defense and rebounding the basketball. It will be tough on the road, but we've been down there before and won. I think we can go down there and get us another win."

Other post-game press conference quotes:


"It is a long season, a sixteen-game season. They all count as one win or one loss. Naturally, you don't like to lose your ballgames at home, but when you do, you have to go and make them up somewhere."

"I wasn't pleased with our ability to defend but Florida is good. They have guards who can handle pressure."


"We have to go to LSU and do to them what Florida did to us."

"This is just a lesson learned. This didn't ruin our season. It will teach us. Everyday you learn something. What happened tonight we will take to practice and learn from it."


"I wouldn't say it was hard to get good perimeter shots tonight. We created for our teammates. We just didn't make shots tonight. We had a couple of open looks but we just didn't make shots."

"I think that Bonner kind of got them going in the second half. He pretty much got any shot he wanted to, got to the foul line."


"The negative part of the game was that we didn't play any defense tonight. Not to take anything away from Florida, they were the better team tonight and I respect them."

"It was a good loss for us. We got the rankings, a lot of pub going into our program right now. That loss brings you back down to earth."

"They are one of the best teams that we have faced. They are not the old Florida of the past where they had the big guy inside."


"We've got plenty of games to do. We aren't going to dwell on this one game. They all count as one win and one loss. We are going to prepare for our next opponent, LSU."

"Our defense was a little slow and we just couldn't get it going. That was the last thing that we thought would happen. It was just one of those nights. Anybody can be beaten in the SEC, because everybody comes to play every night."


"Everybody has to be as one unit on the court. I think we were able to do that tonight."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher and owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial site for Mississippi State sports since October, 1996. He can be reached by email at swindoll@genespage.com

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